In This Review

A Grand Illusion? An Essay On Europe

A Grand Illusion? An Essay On Europe
By Tony Judt
142 pp, Hill And Wang, 1996

The future of the European Union is anything but clear. Three main tasks were to be undertaken after the Maastricht treaty came into effect: building a European Monetary Union (EMU) with a central bank and a single currency, engaging in constitutional reform to simplify (and perhaps democratize) the overcomplicated institutional system, and enlarging the union to include new members. All three projects have run into difficulties. Understanding why requires both analytical clarity and descriptive complexity (at times EU politics remind one of the titles of the great French cartoonist Semp‚'s first two books: Rien n'est Simple and Tout se Complique). Tony Judt's new book provides the analytical clarity that can always be expected of him, but falls short when it comes to descriptive complexity.

Judt has always been a thought-provoking, incisive, even combative historian. His writings have dealt with both Eastern Europe and French intellectual and political history. Some of them are masterpieces of debunking -- often justified, occasionally unfair, and always interesting. This essay on the past and the prospects of the European Union, based on three lectures Judt gave at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna under the auspices of The New York Review of Books and publisher Hill and Wang, displays all of his characteristic virtues, and some of his defects.

"British -- by nationality if not by residence," Judt nevertheless declares himself "enthusiastically European." But he applies the French dictum: qui aime bien, chftie bien. He concludes that a "truly united Europe" is so unlikely that it would be "unwise and self-defeating to insist upon it." In his view, "'Europe' is more than a geographical notion but less than an answer," and has become "little more than the politically correct way to paper over local difficulties, as though the mere invocation of the promise of Europe could substitute for solving problems and crises that really affect the place." While any skeptical student of the EU would agree with the main lines and conclusions of his provocative argument, its bracing analysis suffers from exaggerations, contradictions, and omissions.


Judt's main argument is that the factors that led to both Western Europe's economic recovery after World War II and the first enterprises of integration have disappeared -- the abundance of "coal, labor, and dollars"; the presence of Christian democrats in power in the key countries; the division of the continent that saved the builders of the European Economic Community from having to worry about "trying to incorporate into 'Europe' the poorer lands to the east." The 1945-89 era now looks "more and more like a parenthesis." Judt talks about the "cosseted amnesiac Europe of the 1949-89 years." Today, as he rightly observes, Europe is plagued by unemployment, xenophobia aimed at the immigrant workers so welcome in the 1950s and 1960s, and the ever larger "community of the disadvantaged for whom the EU is the only source of relief." The Franco-German equilibrium of the postwar and Gaullist era, based on "the unspoken premise" that "[the Germans] pretend not to be powerful, and [the French] pretend not to notice that [they] are," has given way to German domination of the EU -- a domination that, paradoxically, breeds EU passivity and inertia in foreign affairs.

Similarly, Judt continues, the myth of a united Europe that developed during the "parenthesis" has given way before the return of nationalism and long-repressed national memory. The new Europe is increasingly closing in on itself. After years of negotiation, the 1995 implementation of the Schengen Accord on the free circulation of persons within countries of the union has meant, in effect, "a sort of highest common factor of discriminatory political arithmetic," where "whichever state has the most draconian and exclusive immigration and/or labor laws will be able to impose its requirements on all others" at the expense of foreigners and refugees. Since "Europe" no longer means "a true, definitively cosmopolitan solution to the parochial provincialism and dangerously exclusivist cultures of nation-states," the nation-state is "the only remaining, as well as the best-adapted, source of collective and communal identification." Paradoxically, the survival of the nation-state's "political and cultural credibility" is necessary "if Europe itself is to remain afloat" (an argument that Alan Milward, as Judt acknowledges, has already made). Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, the EU no longer tends to reinforce the nation-state, but instead weakens it by favoring such strong, prosperous regions as Catalonia and Lombardy.

Even more pessimistic are Judt's reflections on the rise of Central and Eastern European provincialism. He points out that there are many lines of cleavage in Europe: between rich and poor countries, between north and south, and even within the east itself. But it is the east-west division that interests him most. He observes that Nazism and communism combined to destroy "the basis of the rule of law and rights" in Eastern Europe and to wipe out the region's pre-1914 cosmopolitan (largely Jewish) culture. While in Western Europe these norms and traditions were born of the nation-state, in the east they "were born and could only be born from the collapse of empires." Their demise has resulted in nations with huge minorities and pervasive provincialism. Regional cooperation has been a fiasco because of both old hostilities and the COMECON experience.

As a result, Eastern European elites desperately want to be part of "Europe" -- for historical, strategic, cultural, and economic reasons -- and membership in the EU is their ticket for admission. But this means "joining Western Europe on the latter's terms," which are niggardly. This in turn contributes to the demise of the Euro-idealists in the east and to the revival of Eastern European nationalism.

For Judt, only one issue on the EU's agenda really matters: "Is Europe to be extended? If so, how far and on what terms?" Given the present condition of Europe's economy, he sees extension as unlikely: "All conceivable future members of the union (Switzerland apart) fall unambiguously into the category of beneficiaries" of, not contributors to, the EU's budget. Indeed, Germany's experience with the "rehabilitation" of its eastern Lender has already cooled even Bonn's early enthusiasm for expanding the union eastward.


While Judt's sweeping strokes may appear accurate enough, the devil -- as so often in European politics -- is in the details. In his attempt to show that the founders of the European Community in the 1950s were motivated by national interests and purely pragmatic considerations, Judt underestimates the underlying European idealism that allowed them to overcome hatred, distrust, and conflict. There was more talk about "Europe" in the resistance movements and in the period following the end of the war than Judt admits. Even that French nationalist Charles de Gaulle made several speeches at the time about the need for a Western European identity. In 1950 there were many Europeans who actually talked about giving up sovereignty. Conversely, and curiously, Judt attributes the survival of the costly Common Agricultural Policy even as the peasantry was "swiftly melting away" to an idealistic myth of its "cultural centrality," whereas it really rested on a Franco-German economic deal: France would be open to German industrial goods, and in exchange (even with a reduced peasantry) would become Western Europe's exporter of farm goods. Judt also goes astray when he argues that "there is very little tradition in Europe of effective assimilation . . . when it comes to truly foreign communities." France has assimilated (as individuals, to be sure) millions of Italians, Portuguese, Poles, and now North Africans.

Beyond his historical omissions and inaccuracies, Judt also exaggerates the current extent of German domination of Europe. He wrote his book in Vienna, where German preponderance can be acutely felt. But despite German reunification and the uselessness, after the Cold War, of France's force de frappe, which was long one of its trump cards vis-à-vis Germany, Paris has what Joseph Nye might call "soft power" assets that Bonn admits to lacking, as well as military capabilities Germany has but cannot use abroad. It is true that Francois Mitterrand, as president of France, opposed the EU's extension to the east because he feared that Germany would dominate an extended Europe, with Berlin at its geographic center. But Judt, who thinks that would indeed be the case, forgets that many Central and Eastern European leaders, whether they embrace or fear German economic preponderance, do not want to become Berlin's satellites, and would turn to France (and to a more "European" Britain, should one ever exist) for balance. Furthermore, if it is German "domination" that forces the union "to restrict its collective international interventions to uncontentious issues of an environmental or humanitarian nature," how much is there to fear?

Just as he misinterprets Germany's role in an extended Europe, Judt also contradicts himself on the issue of present-day nationalism. In his second chapter he asserts that, with a few exceptions, "there is nothing especially controversial today about being 'European' -- it carries no suggestion of the lack of properly 'national' sentiment." That is clearly not the case in the east, and the very return of nationalism in the west that Judt mentions in his third chapter -- whether French resentment toward "Maastricht" or German resistance to replacing the deutsche mark with the euro -- suggests that it is not the case there either. When discussing France, one cannot even talk about a "return" of nationalism after 1989: what about Gaullism in the 1960s and 1970s?


There are some important issues to which Judt devotes too little attention. Extension is bound up not only with the economic fortunes of the EU but with its institutional problems, which Judt dismisses. There can be, as he says, no "Europe" without its states, but in all sensitive or conflictual matters, the resistance of the states (and sometimes, as in the former East Germany, even of their regions) to further "enlightened despotism" from Brussels limits the union's main organs of government to a mix of sometimes excessive or petty regulations while preventing them from addressing major issues like unemployment and diplomacy. The more states added to the union, the greater the risk of paralysis, deadlock, and delay in all contentious areas -- and not only those in which the rule of unanimity still prevails. Moreover, the present institutional setup's democratic deficit prevents the union from becoming anything like the legitimate force of integration that the nation-state can still claim to be. As Judt acknowledges, there is no European people yet. The institutions of the EU are often seen as either a bureaucratic and technocratic source of relief or an exasperating mass of regulations and demands.

There are only three alternatives. The first, with or without extension eastward, would be a largely symbolic "Europe" of the lowest common denominator. It would probably have no monetary union because of the failure of its key members to meet the conditions for participation (the famous convergence criteria concerning debt, interest rates, inflation, and budget deficits), and its policymaking would remain bogged down by either the rule of unanimity or "blocking minorities" in those areas where, because of the failure of institutional reform, qualified majorities are still required.

The second possibility, dismissed by Judt, is an Europe ... plusieurs vitesses. We will have it anyway, as an effect of British and Danish resistance to integration and the advent of monetary union, to which only some countries are likely to belong initially. But the core countries ought to be bound by more than a common currency; they should be allowed, institutionally, to go beyond the present creaky setup. Institutions matter. Many of the phenomena Judt deplores result not only from bad economic conditions and the prejudice and xenophobia they breed but also from the inability of the EU institutions to overcome collective inertia and address issues that the nation-state, for all its continuing legitimacy, simply cannot resolve. Further rehabilitation of the nation-state's political credibility is not the remedy; political credibility depends on the ability to solve problems, and the average nation-state, in an open world economy, has a limited capacity to do so.

The third possibility, preferably with extension -- since I, like Judt, believe that at least a large part of Central and Eastern Europe ought to be included in the EU -- is an institutional leap that would further reduce the areas in which one state or a small group of states can veto decisions, extend the powers of the European Commission to diplomacy and security affairs, involve national parliaments in the decisions of the EU through a European senate, and increase the powers and change the mode of election of the European Parliament. In short, an unlikely scenario. Such a European entity would be capable of acting in areas of national failure, like unemployment, and in ones in which the present setup has proved ineffective, like noneconomic diplomacy. Judt does not discuss such a scenario, probably because he (like me) deems it unlikely.

Another major issue Judt does not address -- and one that would contribute to his pessimism -- is the commitment to monetary union. EU officials, and many economists, argue that the drastic deficit cuts and reductions in social benefits that the convergence criteria require would be in the economic interest of all the members even in the absence of a commitment to EMU; after all, they have to be competitive on world markets. The "stability pact" on which the Bundesbank has insisted will oblige those who meet the criteria and join the EMU to stick to the criteria after they're in. ("Ye who enter here, abandon all hope of returning to unorthodox practices!") But the political and social costs of that forced march to a single currency are very high. Not only is the extreme right benefiting from its attacks on this course, especially in France and Austria, but both nationalists and champions of "another economic policy" (a more Keynesian one) can now blame the EU for the persistence of high unemployment, for slow growth, for higher taxes, and for social regression. This further weakens the fragile legitimacy of the EU, and undermines that of the moderates of the right and the left who try to carry out highly unpopular policies in their countries. For the sake of a deadline this is a very high-risk course.

Judt also fails to discuss the U.S.-European relationship. The diplomatic impotence and military ineffectiveness of "Europe" result largely from the implicit decision of the founding fathers to leave foreign policy and defense to the nation-states, for whom those functions were the heart of sovereignty, and to the American protector. Bosnia was a demonstration of this choice and of its consequences in the post-Cold War era. Many Europeans accepted, even desired, the American dominance of NATO as long as the Soviet threat existed. But with the end of that peril, and subsequent changes in U.S. foreign policy, the Europeans have, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. American preponderance in NATO persists, Europeans, singly and collectively, lack the means to launch extensive operations on their own, and the Clinton administration's aggressive foreign economic policies have put pressure on a number of EU practices (including the Common Agricultural Policy) as well as on economic relations between European states and countries the United States deems pariahs. On the other hand, the need for American protection has declined, and the willingness of Americans to risk the lives of U.S. soldiers for anything except major threats to the physical and economic security of the United States has declined even further.

This is where the issue of U.S.-European relations becomes entangled with both the institutional issue and the matter of eastward expansion. The distinction between economic policy, which is largely in the hands of the European Commission and requires a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers, and foreign and security policy, which remains strictly intergovernmental and veto-ridden, makes little sense. And the EU members' reluctance to open the union's gates to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, the Baltic States, and whatever other eastern states meet the indispensable democratic requirements helps preserve American hegemony. By providing Washington with a perfect opportunity to integrate some of these states into NATO, the Western Europeans have missed their chance to let them into the EU first. In turn, American hegemony provides a familiar pretext for the smaller EU members to leave international affairs to Washington, for Germany to go on playing a minor role in noneconomic international affairs, and for Britain and France to pursue their usual mix of de facto reliance on the United States (welcome in Britain, with verbal protests in France) and unilateral action. The conflicting pulls of national traditions and situations that I described 30 years ago in essays collected in The European Sisyphus continue to cause discord or paralysis and an American preponderance whose costs -- unless Russia becomes a threat to others than itself -- may well exceed its benefits.

In the present climate, it is not only the democratic intellectuals of Eastern Europe who are being marginalized and denounced by nationalists of all sorts. The believers in a truly united Europe that would be more than an economic animal, one that could define and pursue a genuine European mission in the world, are just as demoralized in the west.

Judt recognizes that Europe for many centuries has gone through phases of expansion and contraction. But his pessimism about the present extends to the future: "In its strong form the idea of 'Europe' has had its day." He may be right. But just because the conditions of 1945-89 have vanished, are new steps forward now impossible? There have been several relances, after periods of stagnation and Europessimism. Leadership and events, after all, affect the course of history. No one today looks at the EU as the solution for every problem plaguing the continent, but it could be a partial answer to some of the major ones. Much will depend on who will lead, after Helmut Kohl, John Major, Alain Jupp‚ and Jacques Santer (the current head of the European Commission). Judt may turn out to be right. But his brilliant jeremiad is just a little too fond of gloom.

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  • Stanley Hoffmann is Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University's Center for European Studies.
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